Start Higher, End Higher Still: A Review of the American Legacy Theatre production of “Higher”

By Alan Jozwiak

The opioid crisis and a musical. That pairing sounds unlikely; however, American Legacy Theatre is premiering a brand-new musical based on that very on the subject, a rock musical called “Higher.”

Seeing itself as a theatre for social change, American Legacy Theatre’s production of Higher likes to think of itself as a service to the community.  When questioned about pressing community issues, the theatre heard back that the opioid crisis was a key concern.  Artistic director Matthew David Gellin answered that call with a work that speaks to the everyday struggles of dealing with opioid addiction.

“Higher” is a homegrown piece of theatre with the creative team are all from Greater Cincinnati.  The idea for the musical, as well as creator of the musical’s music, lyrics, and book, was from addiction counselor Mark Levine.  

Levine had the assistance of two others in creating this vision.  The first was Eric Knechtges, who took Levine’s basic songs and did created the musical score for the singers and orchestra.  American Legacy Theatre’s artistic director Matthew David Gellin was the second person.  He served as a musical midwife to bring this production to fruition.

“Higher” tells the story of two cousins, Benjamin (Robert Carlton Stimmel) and Kyle (Ian Timothy Forsgren), who struggle with alcohol abuse in their teenage years.  They enter the world of opioid addiction only after being discharged from the military and suffering from war wounds the require prescription pain killers.

Stimmel does a fine job of playing Benjamin as a Charlie Brownesque underdog.  Benjamin is the average everyday guy who stumbles through life without really understanding what he is doing and Stimmel conveys that cluelessness to perfection.  In addition, Stimmel has an impressive set of vocal chords which he uses to convey the hidden pain of his character.

Forsgren is a standout as Kyle. Locally known for his dance work with Pones, Inc., Forsgren  takes his dancer’s physicality and blends it with his acting abilities to do some outstanding work. Kyle’s descent into opioid addiction at the end of act one was very intense and truly compelling.  It accurately portrayed the inner turmoil of his character.

The rest of the cast is strong in both acting and vocals. Benjamin’s mother (Clare Hingsbergen) not only can belt out a song, but she exudes care and concern for her son, always wanting to make things better with a trip to the ice cream parlor.  Benjamin’s high school crush Becca (Rachael Maye Aronoff) also can belt out a song and fight for Benjamin against the clutches of addiction.  She gives a strong performance that is convincing and vocally vibrant.

Foregoing elaborate set pieces, director Matthew David Gellin strips down the production to have all the action take place within the theatre of the audience’s mind.  This is a wise move, since the play takes place in many different settings.  Gellin keeps things moving and allows actors space enough to find their own interpretation of the characters, allowing the audience to get invested in those characters.

In the Q & A after the show, “Higher” was called a work in progress.  I agree with that assessment because there are places which still need tweaking.  One is with the character Mara as being the metaphorical representation of addiction in the play. The script itself is not clear on that fact and it took me until the beginning of the second act to clarify that fact.

“Higher” will appeal the adventuresome theatre-goer wanting to see new work, as well as those whose lives has been touched by addiction.  For those concerned that they might be triggered by something seen onstage, American Legacy Theatre also makes available trigger counselors who are out in the the lobby during each show and can talk to anyone in need of counseling.

“Higher” runs from October 29-November 7, 2021, with shows running Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. They are playing at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, 1028 Scott Blvd, Covington, KY 41011. For ticket information, go to their website: https://www.americanlegacytheatre.org/on-stage.